Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A review of Kingdom Builder....

Following up Dominion has got to be one helluva tough task. The original "deck-building" card game has spawned a dynamic, exciting, and very different way to play hobby games. Whether or not you like Dominion, it's clear that its impact over the past 4 years has been a monumental game-changer (excuse the pun) unlike anything since Magic: The Gathering. So when that's your debut, expectations are pretty high for the sophomore effort. Cue 4 years later and we get Kingdom Builder from Queen Games, a beautifully produced abstract board game that I argue is clearly inspired by the modularity of Dominion but really lacks that game's originality, depth, and most of its excitement.

Now some will argue that comparing Kingdom Builder to Dominion isn't really fair as the gameplay is so different, one being an abstract network-building Euro and the other a deck-building card game. I would say, however, that the comparison is quite apt not only because they have the same designer but also because the only really original part of KB is clearly inspired by the random Kingdom card setup of Dominion. And sadly for me, this seems to be the only really interesting part of the game as well.

3 random scoring goals and the bonus castle goal
So what do you do in Kingdom Builder? Well, that really depends on the 3 scoring cards you draw at the beginning of the game out of a possible 10. One card, for example, gives points for large contiguous groups of connected settlements and another awards first and second place to players with majorities in quadrants of the board. Some scoring cards encourage spreading out while others invite you to surround certain spaces on the board. The one scoring condition that holds true every game, and hence does not require a card, is that you receive 3 points for every castle you connect to. In each game, there are between 4 and 6 castles so this is nothing to scoff at when high score sometimes can be as low as 40. So in essence this is really a connection game, much like Ticket To Ride or Through The Desert.

The gameplay itself is fairly simple, almost too simple. In fact, the first time I read through the ruleset, my immediate thoughts were, "Is that it?" and I actually avoided the purchase until I'd been swayed by some fairly positive reviews. In short, each player has 40 houses ("settlements") to place on the board to maximize their points according to the 3 scoring cards picked for that game. Every round a player draws a landscape card which designates on which of the 5 types of empty landscape spaces he MUST play 3 of his houses. In addition, if at all possible these new settlements must be played connected to one of that player's previously played settlements. And that's mostly it. But the thing is, it's these two somewhat artificial constraints that require most of the strategy and yet also provide a lot of the aggravation. Let me explain further.

The different blocks of landscape are all large and connected to each other so when you place 3 settlements in the desert, for example, you could decide whether to place at the edge of the desert next to, say, a patch of forest. This will allow you to continue onto that forest if you draw a forest card later. More often, though, you are trying not to connect to that forest region so that if you draw that forest card later and you are forced to play on a forest, you can start anywhere as hopefully there are no empty forest hexes next to your played settlements. Notice how both of these moves depended mightily on that certain card you drew later. But what happens if you played in the desert and then you drew another desert card and had to stay connected and play more houses in the desert. And you had no choice but to play your houses adjacent to the fields which you don't feel like expanding into. Then the next turn you draw a field card and, well, there goes another turn as you are forced to play into the fields. Yeah, lame. There are some turns in this game that almost completely play themselves and usually not in the way you want them to either. Considering you get at most 14 turns in the game (and that's if you play really poorly), wasting 3 or 4 on bad cards draw does not feel good at all.

No harbour for anyone else.  Sorry!
Not to say there aren't some ways around this. Certain locations on the board when connected to provide an action token which you can use repeatedly to do things like add a settlement to a certain terrain type or move one settlement 2 spaces, the latter being very useful. And like the scoring cards, only 4 of the 8 different action tokens are available every game providing more of that Dominion-style modularity. And sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Clever plays can be made when certain tokens are played before your landscape card allowing you to make a connection your previously couldn't. But this does lead to some major down-time when one player has 5 tokens and a landscape card and is scratching their head trying to optimize their move according to the four different scoring possibilities. Even worse, as in our last game, one player could get a field card then a chasm card on the first couple turns, completely surround the harbour action space, and basically lock everyone else out of the win in the first 5 minutes. Geez, wish we'd drawn either of those cards.....

So why is Dominion such a success whilst Kingdom Builder just falls kind of flat? Both games start with a very simple base game and build upon it using a subset of rules possibilities. Out of that modularity comes the interest in the game. The big difference is that base game of Dominion is unique, exciting, and very different and the cards there tweak that formula in very different ways. Kingdom Builder is not unique and really not that interesting. Flip a card, play houses on that type of space, remain connected if possible. The variety introduced by the actions usually does little more than let you play another house and the scoring opportunities are in general rather dull ("score for majority", "make the biggest connected group", "connect locations together on the board"). All of these goals have been done before many times, and I daresay better in most cases, so randomly combining a few of them doesn't really add that much tension.

In addition, unlike Dominion which is a fairly balanced game (yes, it really is, everyone can buy the exact same cards), KB is totally unbalanced and rather luck-driven by the landscape cards. One only has to go to the BGG threads to see how some players have tried to fix this aspect of the game. When you have a strategy but you have to waste turns ignoring it and just playing what the card tells you to, there is something seriously wrong.

Finally, and I think this is the biggest issue with Kingdom Builder, Dominion provides rewarding moments throughout its play-time. Every time you draw and cleverly chain together enough cards to purchase a Province in Dominion, it's that emotional payoff, that reason to continue. Other much better connection games have these mid-game rewards, too, like Ticket To Ride when you connect two cities to finish a ticket or Through The Desert when you surround a group of point chips and pick them up immediately. The problem with KB is that all of the scoring occurs at the end of the game no matter what scoring cards you're playing with so the most interesting part of the game for me is the last two minutes when we tally it all up. Too bad we played for 45 minutes to an hour just to get there.

I'm surprised that something this light and luck-driven has been released by Queen Games who in the past few years have released some of my favourite games. I kind of feel like they saw the runaway success of Dominion and its and decided to just accept the next thing from him to come along. Not to say that others couldn't enjoy this game, as it's not awful or unplayable. I mean, there is definitely a following online of people have house-ruled this game to shit trying to make it more strategic. But I'm kind of stubborn about house rules as I treat games like I do art, movies, and music. I want to experience a game exactly as the designer and company intended me to experience it, good or bad. And even if one is able to fix the random "you win, you don't" aspect of the landscape card draw, I just don't find the game all that interesting. I think the next time I'm in the mood for a good connection game, I'll just go back to Knizia's classic Through The Desert which is a helluva lot more fun.

I probably should have just listened to my gut when I first read the rule-set. Ah well, you live, you learn.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On The Horizon: Uncharted The Board Game....

When I have free time from work and board gaming (very rare), I do enjoy playing video games as well.  And the best video games I think I have ever played are the Uncharted series on the Playstation 3 system. If you've never heard of them, just imagine the pure cinematic joy of the Indiana Jones movies combined with the cocky attitude and humour of some Bruce Campbell films and you'll get the idea.  In addition to that, the main protagonist in the series, Nathan Drake, is the most swoon-worthy pixellation ever to climb his way on to a console (yes, my name is Eric and I have a crush on a video game character).

Seriously, though, the gameplay and puzzle-solving in all the Uncharted series is unparalleled and the writing and stories are top-notch.  The games truly feel like cinematic experiences and are far better than most action flicks coming out nowadays.  So now that I've read that Bandai is releasing a board game version, I can't help but be curious.  I own the Resident Evil Deck-building Game, also from Bandai, and despite its level of chaos, it's very thematic, quite fun, and true to the video game.  I'm excited to see what they do with my favourite series.

(Thanks to BGN for the link...)

Monday, March 19, 2012

First Play: Last Will...

Haven't posted in awhile due to time and other things.  Kinda feel like I've been neglecting this here bloggy thingy.   Part of this has been practicing for my driver's test (yes, my name is Eric, I'm 31 and I have no driver's license).

But I have gotten a little bit of game playing in and we tried out Last Will this past St. Patrick's Day.  If you haven't heard, Last Will was one of the darlings of Essen 2011 and a release from Czech Games Editions and Rio Grande.  CGE is known for producing most of the Vlaada Chvatil games so they have a record of fun and beautifully produced yet extraordinarily complex games.

Last Will, designed by Vladimir Suchy, is quite an unusual bird in that the goal is to get rid of your money as fast as possible.  Yes, it's a race to be the first to bankruptcy.  Story goes that your rich uncle wants to leave all his wealth to the person who will enjoy it the most so you're all given a sum of money and you need to be the fastest to squander it all go into debt (Hmmm.....  I should be REALLY good at this one!)  What it ends up being is a very cleverly constructed engine-building card game with some worker-placement and action selection.  It's all rather more complex than I expected, not in a rules sense, but in the way the cards interact with each other and the symbology involved.

And the theme is integrated quite well, I must say, as this game would be dry as a bone without the feeling that you're going on a wild spending spree.  For example, one particularly powerful event card 'Wild Party' costs you an action to bring the value of one of your estate homes down three levels (get it?  You party like crazy and destroy your mansion so you can sell it for cheap later).  In the driest sense, you spend one action to decrease the marker on one of your cards by three but in play we were laughing out loud and scrambling to capture the card.  You see, the idea of buying and selling real estate with real expenses and hired help makes this game a fascinating experience, especially when you have to sell low to earn the LEAST amount of coin.  In fact, this is one of the most integrated themes I've seen since a game like Galaxy Trucker, yet another great CGE release.

It's clear to me that this game has levels and nuances that we haven't even thought of after one round and yet it's all wrapped up in a really enjoyable package.  And now that I've played it once it should be a much easier experience explaining it to others.  Definitely worth a look if you get the chance as spending tons of money has never been this challenging.  At least not for me.  Ha.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

First play: Oltre Mare....

The classic trading game Bohnanza is a bit hit-or-miss for me.  I recognize the genius of it but I find it rather long and exhausting and I tire of all the haggling about halfway through every game.  And since the game really is nothing but haggling, well, there you go.  So I have been searching for awhile for Emanuele Ornella's Oltre Mare from 2004 as I had heard it was a bit like Bohnanza in terms of set collection but with a more fleshed-out game surrounding all the trading. 

Beautiful little unnecessary ships....

And boy was I right!  What an elegant and lively game.  Oltre Mare combines the trading of the bean game with more hand management, a simple economy, and cleverly integrated action selection.  And there is even a light memory element incorporated into the play that is reminiscent of one of my favourite card games, Mamma Mia.  And okay, one could argue the gorgeous ships and board are superfluous to the gameplay but I think they add greatly to the theme of trading in the Mediterranean. 

I love this delight of a game and can't wait to play it again.  It's not too deep but still thoughtful, fast-paced, and very interactive.  I feel like this one will pair perfectly with bottle of fine Italian wine, some tapas, and a few very animated friends.  Definitely glad I finally picked it up.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A review of Chaotic Connections....

I must admit I have quite the affinity for network-building games.  Unless this is the first post of mine you've ever read, you'll probably know that I think Ticket To Ride is the cat's pajamas.  In fact, any sort of train game, simple or complicated, in which the goal is to connect various locations, usually sits pretty well with me.  Another quick and simple game of network-building, TransAmerica, has also been very well-received in our group.  So when a copy of Chaotic Connections was offered to me for review, I took a look at the description and thought, sure, why not.  (I tend to be wary of indie games offered for review lately as I have had at least a couple completely unplayable games sent my way - games whose rules were so incomplete, sketchy, or just contradictory that they had to be aborted 5 minutes in.  I just can't review that.) 

But Chaotic Connections, cleary inspired by TransAmerica, seemed like a silly enough mashup of that game and your classic card-based game Sorry.  Now that I've played it, I can say it feels a bit more like the classic but dated game of chaos, Nuclear War.  I must be honest right now and say that this game just isn't for me.  But considering the outstanding success of something as god-awful boring and chaotic as Killer Bunnies (which really is just a bloated rip-off of Nuclear War), I think this game may be enjoyable for many.  It's definitely a lot shorter and simpler than KB, which already makes me think it is a much better game.

Before I discuss the gameplay, though, I really need to mention the main issue I have with the game and the thing that may just hold it back from getting a wider audience:  the production values.  To say this isn't your usual Days of Wonder production would be an understatement.  The graphic design is not only very bland but it also works against the game.  The square player chips don't actually fit on the spaces that well and we found ourselves rearranging them a bit mid-game to try and fit them all on a path between cities.  The cards have no indication on them of where on the board the cities lie (unlike, say, TransAmerica or Ticket To Ride) so we searched a little at the beginning.  Besides this, the cards are very, very cheap stock.  One of our city cards got a little wet in the first 5 minutes started to warp immediately.  No glossy protection for you!  The worst offenders, though, are the standup signs which get placed on the board to mark detours, road closed, and intersections. They come with some generic black stands (which don't fit) to hold them up but unfortunately they are printed only on one side.  So unless you're all playing on one side of the table, half the people can't make out the signage.  This could have so easily been fixed by either printing on both sides of the card stock or maybe offering a fold at the top so it would be folded into a two-sided piece.

Having said all that, once the coloured chips were all punched out (and a few lost forever due to the really crappy cutting job of the card stock) the setup and explanation of the rules was a breeze.  The game itself is quite simple.  Like TransAmerica, all players are given a set of cities to try and connect to using their own and other players markers.  But unlike TA, everyone marks their cities at the beginning so you know exactly what your opponents are going for.  And I actually like that.  What I didn't really like was that the cities are randomly dealt and only one of your goal cities is picked by an opponent.  So basically you pick the 3 of 5 city cards that are the closest on the board and then the player to your right picks the 4th from the two cards they have left (clearly they pick the one farthest from your other cities...) 

Then the game proceeds with players playing 1 of 4 cards from their hands every turn, some of the cards being a forced play if you have them.  Cards allow players to add mileage markers (chips), take away opponent's markers, block routes temporarily or permanently, or even add or remove cities from a players goals.  It's all quite random, and, well, yes, chaotic and players continue adding their chips and removing their opponent's until someone connects all their cities and wins.  The game moves quite quickly and our games averaged 20-30 minutes.

It is fairly clear to me that I am not the target audience for this game.  The choices are very simple - "player A is going to win.  I should remove his markers", "I have add 300 and add 500 miles cards.  I should play the add 500 miles", etc. - but the board play is rather interesting.  Connecting to someone else's network will get you further but also may help them with their goal.  These are some great lessons for kids but a bit simplistic for adults.  As well, the frustration of being randomly handed more cities to connect to while the player beside you gets to remove his is, well, chaotic.  And having all your cities spread across the board while the other players manages to start his within 10 spaces of each other is also, well, chaotic.  And to add 4 mileage markers and then have them removed by others before your next turn, and then add them again, and then have them removed, and then added again.  And then you win!  Well, that is pretty chaotic.  I think you get the idea.

One of the comments from another player is that this game could be house-ruled tons to make for a much better experience.  Other ways to determine cities would make for a much better game, I think.  For example, you pick one of your cities and then the other players pick 3.  That would make for a much better experience and a far more interesting game.  In fact, it's something I think I'd like to try.

Still, the fact is the very similar and much better-produced TransAmerica offers a way more balanced approach to the game set-up and removes the chaos completely by not using cards and giving each player the same number of plays a turn.  A game of TA is usually very close each time and offers much tougher decisions.  But maybe that's not what you're looking for.  Maybe you enjoy the randomness of a classic like Mille Bornes or the nasty take-that of Sorry and you think that would improve a game like Ticket To Ride or TransAmerica.  Then I actually think you may enjoy Chaotic Connections.  Hey, on the website they even advertise that a game could take 5 or 45 minutes.  If that's okay by you, and you've got some young kids to play with, this could actually be a decent one.  For my money, though, I prefer a much more balanced game -  I like to feel like my decisions aren't entirely obvious each turn and that I have some semblance of control over whether I win or lose.

But hey, extremely chaotic games like Killer Bunnies sell tons of copies.  If you like chaos, and you want something to play with the kiddies, you might want to consider this one.  Just don't get the cards wet......

Friday, March 2, 2012

Randoms from the last couple game nights...

Some great games got played the last couple weeks. On top of that, as of last week we've moved our Monday night games to the Grad House, UW's on-campus pub. That means there's beer. Lots of beer. And some hella good food, too. Awesome.

My second game of A Few Acres of Snow was far more interesting and tense.  A new classic and a fascinating design.

Ghost Stories at the other table.  Looks VERY confusing....

Friday, it's Friday, gonna play Friese's Friday!  Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun.....

Age of Steam.  Always amazing.  'Nuff said

Kingdom Builder at the Grad House.  Notice the delicious beer.

Alien Frontiers, the Kickstarter darling, is a game I do not play enough.  Fun and fast-paced and one of the best dice games ever.  And more beer.

Second round of Quebec.  No beer as this was not played by me.